Jonathan Edwards, Karl Barth, and Natural Revelation

Jonathan Edwards was an experiential theologian. If that statement conjures words like “liberal” and “progressive” in the Protestant mind, then it’s certainly a 21st century one. Despite his suspicion of fanaticism that attached itself to the Great Awakening, Edwards was not prone to sever the heat from the light of Scripture as other rationalists such as Charles Chauncy might. Distinct from the views of later theologians like Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834), Edwards’ approach to revelation was ultimately informed by the Scriptures and illumined by the same Spirit that inspired them. Unlike Schleiermacher’s subjective feeling of “dependence,” Edwards believed that there indeed was an overarching, objective external witness. Truth had a name and a source and it wasn’t from within. His high view of Scripture is a defining point of similarity with someone like Karl Barth (1886-1968), however his high view of natural theology is not. Both men understood sin’s completely paralyzing effects upon mankind and the subsequent need for divine revelation. Both men also understood that the Spirit’s intervention was the means by which newness of life was achieved. Exactly how this was achieved, however, is where Barth and Edwards diverge in their respective Reformed theologies.

In his sermon A Divine and Supernatural Light, Edwards grants a human capability that would never have been granted by Barth: “Men by mere principles of nature are capable of being affected with things that have a special relation to religion as well as other things.” This elevated view of human epistemology is not due to Edwards’ diminished doctrine of depravity. Rather, Edwards understood Romans 2 and the doctrine of general revelation in terms of common grace. His high view of natural revelation wasn’t so high that it paralleled Catholic dogma, yet not so low that it mirrored Calvin. This in turn inspired Edwards’ doctrine of natural ability. (as opposed to moral inability) As God worked in two distinct ways in human beings, the Connecticut River Puritan understood two kinds of grace: common and special. The former was reserved for natural theology: man’s reason, conscience, and internal sense of right and wrong. Special grace was reserved in Scripture. According to Edwards, nature wasn’t beyond saving. It only needed the proper assistance: “Common grace differs from special, in that it influences only by assisting of nature; and not by imparting grace, or bestowing any thing above nature. The light that is obtained is wholly natural, or of not superior kind to what mere nature attains to, though more of that kind be obtained than would be obtained if men were left wholly to themselves.” The faculties of the soul, in Edwards’ mind, were assisted when someone felt guilty for their actions. Natural conscience or reason, by nature, made a man sensible of guilt.

Much of Edwardsian thought was aimed at engaging the Enlightenment. Instead of running away from empirical study and scientific observation, Jonathan Edwards made it one of his life’s aims to show that the Christian religion was indeed “reasonable.” Deists and their Unitarian descendants of the nineteenth century began to tear at the fabric of orthodoxy by introducing scientific discoveries as authoritative means to interpret the Bible. Science became hermeneutic. However, for Edwards, Scripture was the defining lens in which to interpret everything under the sun. On the other hand, what made Edwards unique in his time was his use of empirical evidence to bolster the truths of Scripture. Edwards was a voracious reader, and men like John Locke (1632-1704) assisted him in formulating his doctrine of the will. (Locke believed that the will was not a self-determining entity but only a faculty to be used by the human agent) From his faculty psychology to his intricate study of spiders, the preacher at Northampton saw the beauty of reason and nature, pictures reflecting God’s infinite glory. While Edwards could not be labeled a “Lockean” as a whole, the British empiricist did assist the Northampton pastor in epistemology.

Barth, however, did not uphold the effective witness of reason or conscience. As God could not effectively reveal Himself due to man’s complete blindness to Him, God’s glory was not efficiently communicated through natural theology. Thus the Calvin historian and Neo-Orthodox theologian denied natural revelation as a positive source of light, instead pointing to its damning testimony against the sinful man “without excuse.” This is where the two theologians part ways. Edwards not only takes time to define the conscience, but explicitly lays out God’s usage of it: “Conscience is a principle natural to men; and the work that it doth naturally, or of itself, is to give an apprehension of right and wrong, and to suggest to the mind the relation that there is between right and wrong and a retribution. The Spirit of God, in those convictions which unregenerate men sometimes have, assists conscience to do this work in a further degree than it would do if they were left to themselves.” Regenerate or no, man had a conscience. In fact, in his sermon Wicked Men Useful in Their Destruction Only, Edwards explains that the unregenerate will have perfectly sharpened consciences in Hell, knowing their punishment to be just yet lacking the sweet sense of God’s excellency. The difference between the regenerate and the unregenerate in regard to the Spirit is the way in which He acts, as He “unites himself with the mind of a saint, takes him for his temple, actuates and influences him as a new supernatural principle of life and action.”

Edwards did not interpret Romans 2:15 to be necessarily speaking of a regenerate saint, as Barth did. Barth’s theology of revelation would not permit him to consider an unregenerate sinner possessing a divinely-aided conscience and sense of law. That would mean that God had effectively revealed Himself through natural theology, something Barth repudiated. Conversely, Edwards interpreted Romans 2:15 as general revelation, common grace to the unregenerate. This was not an “indwelling” grace, but an “actuating” grace that affected the person with “their conscience bearing witness.”

In an attempt to engage Enlightenment principles, Edwards was always cognizant of reason. Reformed theology had come a long way since Martin Luther declared that reason was the devil’s harlot. (Erlangen Edition v. 16, pp. 142) Instead, Edwards sought to fit reason in its proper place within a Reformed theology: “God, in letting in this light into the soul, deals with man according to his nature, and makes us of his rational faculties.” This is one of the distinguishing views between Edwards and Barth. Barth was attacking narcissistic Nazi theology. Edwards was attempting to beat the Deists at their own game. In describing how the Spirit utilizes reason, Edwards posited that “it not only removes the hindrances of reason, but positively helps reason.” Like the light of the sun shining upon an object, so the illumination of the Spirit shined upon a natural faculty. The reason is the “subject” of divine light, renewing it according to the Lord’s own mind and heart. According to his unique faculty psychology, Edwards speaks extensively about the mind, giving it preeminence over the will in the religious affections. The knowledge granted even to unbelievers through natural theology was grace from God, something Barth contended was impossible. McClymond and McDermott identify Edwards’ doctrine of dual graces in revelation: “For Edwards, the knowledge about God acquired by the unregenerate reason in reflecting on the natural world and on scripture was a means of grace.” (The Theology of Jonathan Edwards (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 140) God effectively communicated Himself and His glory even through man’s reason. Edwardsian natural theology appreciated the human faculties, interpreting Romans 2:14-16 as a beautiful testament to the triune God. For Edwards, divine glory was defined in terms of its emanation and remanation in a world of consciousness. For God to be glorious and not communicate that glory would be a paradox. (This is one of the primary themes of Edwards’ The End for Which God Created the World) Thus in a passage on the judgment of Gentiles and God’s general revelation, Edwards was inclined to see God’s effective communication of Himself, even to the unregenerate.

Karl Barth and Jonathan Edwards inherited the same Reformed tradition, yet each contributed his own unique epistemological emphasis. Their respective doctrines of natural theology and general revelation illustrate that. A close examination of each man’s interpretation of Romans 2:14-16 reveals this heterogeneity within Reformed thought. Possessing their own distinct views on natural revelation, Edwards and Barth were men who should be examined underneath the lens of their respective historical contexts. One stood against Enlightenment unbelief, the other against the self-justifying minds of the Third Reich.


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